The Purge

The idea of eventually combining two households, my fiancé’s and mine, has me a little stressed out.  We would have to live in Buckingham Palace to fit all of Julie’s stuff and all of my stuff under one roof.  So, we are both working to purge a bit.

Since I’d rather spend the day reading a scientific atlas than cleaning, I cajoled my lady into helping me tidy up a bit.  It was an interesting morning.

Julie has a fairly strong commitment to expiration dates.  She felt rather strongly that the oregano that expired in 2003 should go.  Does oregano really go bad?  After some discussion, she encouraged me to toss anything that had expired prior to 2015.  I thought that was a good idea.

Interestingly, I had five containers of Mustard Powder.  I can assure you that mustard has NEVER been birthed in my kitchen.  Did a house guest slip some in my cupboard?  How in the hell did four bottles of Mustard Powder appear on my spice shelf?  Next Saturday I’m going to have a Mustard Powder sale – I’m putting signs up on telephone poles in the neighborhood:  EXPIRED MUSTARD POWDER FOR SALE!  LARGE SELECTION AVAILABLE.

I also have four large cooking forks that I use exclusively to break up and brown ground beef.  My favorite has a blue handle and is slightly rusty.  Julie felt that to avoid botulism I might consider tossing it.  “Honey, you have four of these forks and this one is rusty.  What if you threw this one away” she held up the blue handled.

“But it’s my favorite!  It curves just right and is the king of splitting up the meat when it’s all stuck together.”

“But pieces of metal are getting into the meat that you are then feeding to your children.”

I hadn’t thought of that…

My mom also tried to throw that meat fork out the prior year.  I rescued it from the TRASH CAN!

Julie was very good.  She just made suggestions, asked some thoughtful questions, and let me decide what should go.  “Honey, is there a reason you keep your bug spray on the same shelf with the food in the pantry?  And do you need 8 cans of Off?”

When we got to the bathroom she made interesting observations, “Maybe the drain snake you use for unclogging your shower should be kept in a separate area from your toothbrush.”  She explained to me about the opioid crisis and encouraged me to dispose of the pain killers from my appendectomy of ‘76.  “I just don’t think you would want to take those now.”

“But I loved Dr. McCutchen, and he is deceased.  I’ll never get another prescription from him again.”

I think cleaning out with Julie is better for me than doing it myself.  She constantly thinks of things that never cross my mind.

Coincidentally, Julie’s mom gave me a new meat grinding utensil that is coated in Teflon.  It’s actually BETTER than the blue handled fork.  I’m pondering tossing it.

 

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The Dadar

Recently I was asked to write an article for Carolina Parent Magazine.  This was my first attempt.  The article is in their February edition, and the month’s theme is dating.  

Several years ago, my oldest daughter, DJ, who was in high school at the time, came into the house at around 11 PM.  “Dad, you’re not going to believe what happened!”  Her enthusiasm peaked my interest.  I turned to see a quite anguished face.  “What?”  “Well, Sam called me and,” Sam was a friend from school, “OMG – when she got home tonight her mom was mugging with her boyfriend in the driveway!  Gross!  Why would old people do that?”

Sam’s mother is a widow and has been for quite some time.  Apparently mugging is making-out.  I too lost my wife, seven years ago, and I say “Go Sam’s mom!!”  I had to explain to my kid that although we had crested 40, we still liked to kiss, eat solid foods and go to the bathroom independently – all the regular stuff that she liked to do.

She scrunched up her nose, “Oooo.”

I actually have three daughters.  Two are in high school, the oldest now in college.  Their high school is all girls.  It limits their dating options.

DJ’s junior year brought our first real boyfriend:  Donald.  I referred to him as The Donald – it was pre-Trump presidency days.  After they declared their intent to exclusively date, my dadar (Dad Radar) went up.  I was no longer content with him doing a drive-by to pick her up.  “No more tooting the horn and you leaping out the front door.  The Donald needs to walk his butt inside this house, look me in the eye and shake my hand.  Yeah – that’s what The Donald is going to do.”

I found it interesting that the week before, a toot and scoot was acceptable to me.  Suddenly I needed to see his eyes and let him feel the grip of my hand.  You can tell a lot about a guy in those two gestures.

Although I got push-back, the following Friday night The Donald parked and entered.  His demeanor told me he was uneasy.  That made me happy.  I strove with all my might to convey through my nonverbals two things to this obviously inexperienced young man:

1)  She’d better be happy when she gets home

2)  Touch her and you die.

Their connection hearkened me back to my first girlfriend, Carolanne.  It was eighth grade, and we’d meet at her house, walk through the woods to the park and “mug” like Sam’s mom.  Later I learned her little brother and sister hid behind trees and watched us.  Her father wasn’t around very much and her mother was not very intimidating.  It was fun!  I didn’t want my daughter to have that experience.  She could have fun playing volleyball or something.

It’s interesting how our perspectives on things evolve through the years.  It’s interesting how as parents, we work to shield our kids from some of the exact things we did.  It’s interesting how our kids have a totally different set of standards for us than they have for themselves.

The Donald didn’t last very long.  A fairly amicable break-up occurred at the local Moe’s just a month or so after our first handshake.  And although he was the one whose heart was broken, I don’t think he minded all that much.  I believe he was more fit for a girl with a less attentive father.

The Group

Group photo

None of us wanted to go.  It was approximately six months after our wives had died, and we were all still stunned.  We were ripe with grief; shocked; stunned with the mess we had been left.

Over seven years ago, on a Monday night, I drove twenty minutes to a nondescript office building in Chapel Hill, NC.  It was a couple of miles from the university, a couple of miles from the hospital where parents were dying from cancer.

Two doctors, Donald Rosenstein and Justin Yopp, who treated those with psychological fallout from their disease, were stunned at their realization that no one in the world to their knowledge had studied fathers who had lost their wives.  There was no research, no support.  The wife died, and the men bucked up or seemingly did.

Eight of us showed the first night.  We sat around a table and shared our stories.  Looking back on it, I’m surprised that any of us went back.  You watch eight grown men, strangers, vomit their most vulnerable emotions, tears running down all sixteen cheeks, for what seemed like hours – and you might not return either.  But seven of us did.

What began as a six week trial lasted for four years.  In fact, nearly eight years later, we convene bi-annually just to catch up.

We aren’t all alike.  One is very shy.  Another tackles life like he’s building a Boeing 747.  One swears the wrong parent died.  One, me, can toss a one-liner like a champ to avoid going too deep.

What these two doctors did through their work with us is stunning.  With unwavering support and listening ears, they ushered us back to our new normal.

Three in the group are remarried.  I am engaged.  Two others have had significant relationships.  Our families are fine and broken and have coped in their own ways.

It is fascinating to see our evolution.  I call it the making of men.

Last week Don and Justin published their book about us:  The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine LifeIt outlines stories that we shared at our meetings with significant insight from an outsider’s view.  I’d say it is worth the read.

I am indebted to many, many people for getting me through to a point of incredible happiness but especially to this group.  My single father buddies gave me a soft place to land assuring me I wasn’t losing my mind.  They let me know that the mistakes I made weren’t any worse than theirs.  These dudes I’ve spent less time with than most of my other friends, understand me in very deep ways.

As for Don and Justin, they have been the heartbeat.  Encouraging.  Sharing insights.  Occasionally kicking one of us in the butt.  For them I am grateful.

The Question Has Been Popped

Hambell fam pic

I’m guessing that all people live through highs and lows in life.  It’s natural to feel the ups and downs that come with transition, success and loss.  I think that for most of us, the ride is fairly smooth – living in a state of good most of the time – not incredible, yet not so bad.

I am very certain that others in this world have felt pain deeper than mine, although I find it hard to comprehend.  In 2010, I hurt.  Gut wrenching, bone chilling pain.  I can’t imagine worse.  It was deep and perpetual, with very few moments of light; hard to put into words.

I remember going to my grief counselor early on in my journey.

“Danny, it will be three to five years before you feel normal,” she told me.

“That is unacceptable,” I replied.

In many ways she was right.

I made good decisions as I pondered my future.  I got significant counseling, poured myself into new adventures, and was cautious not to jump into a new relationship simply for the sake of avoiding loneliness, my greatest fear.  Although, I longed for companionship, for someone to really love.

My, my, how life has changed.

Last Tuesday night I drove to Charlotte to surprise my girlfriend; my kids in tow.  They dropped me at a restaurant I’d never been in before.  I walked in, the maitre d’ was expecting me.  He escorted me to a cozy booth he had chosen for this occasion.  Forty-five minutes later, Julie arrived.  She thought she was meeting one of her best girlfriends for dinner, instead she got me.

“Why are you in Charlotte?  What’s going on?” she was puzzled.

“I have a question I need to ask,” I informed.

Two years ago, when we first started dating, I was captivated.  What I didn’t know at the time was that she was THE one.  This woman who loves me unconditionally, laughs at my jokes, and challenges me to be better, totally stole my heart.

Some people are lucky enough to find their compliment.  Someone with the balance of enough same and enough different.  Someone who fits.  I am that lucky one.

We aren’t perfect, but we’re perfect for each other.

Like grief, true love can be indescribable.  It’s a feeling of fullness and security.  It busts right through the hard, making everything seem alright.  Even in separate cities for now, my loneliness is gone.

Oh, she said yes!  We will marry at some point in 2019 after her daughter finishes high school.

I’m not sure how or why, but somehow I’ve been given a second chance at life, something at times I just couldn’t imagine.  The lesson for me is hope.

Merry Christmas 2017

Da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da BATMAN!

As a young kid in Hickory, NC, one of my favorite things to do was to toss a cape on my back and run around the back yard singing “da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da BATMAN.”  Bruce Wayne had it all – a house with secret passageways, a girlfriend named “Cat Woman,” a cool black sports car, a spotlight that shined his own signature image over Gotham City and… a CAPE.  Who cares about the rest of the stuff when you have a kick-ass cape draped around your shoulders?  It just reeks of fierceness.

Apparently, my brother and I also liked the cowboys.  I remember the caps that came with the guns.  You had to position them just so on the hammer-spring.  And if you did, POP!  The noise would startle any girl in the neighborhood and all adults over the age of 30.

cowboys

Recently, Julie pointed out my obsession with dress up.

It started when I pulled out my personal cape, made by my friends after one of the productions of Ira David Wood’s A Christmas Carol which the girls and I have performed in for the past few years.

“Honey, that’s really nice.  Do you actually wear it out of the house?”

We then looked up appropriate places to wear a cape.  I think a fashion runway in London is likely the most appropriate.  I’m just ahead of my time.

When I was chosen to be a Celebrity Father Chef at my kids’ schools’ annual pancake breakfast, we were given a chef’s jacket and hat to identify us in the worthy role we had attained.  After all patrons had been served, I headed out to the dining room with my loaded Chinet.

cook

“Honey, do you want me to hold onto your hat while you eat?” Julie asked.

“Nah.  I sort of like it.  It’s very tall.”

At Halloween I convinced my children to dress up like nerds with me for Trunk-or-Treat.  We made kids answer math problems in exchange for candy.  I sent Julie that picture as well and tried to convince her that the nerdy guys were actually the best catches.  I think she bought it… I guess time will tell.  She did suggest that maybe one day I could have a dress up closet.  Man, would that be great or what???

nerd

There’s just something about donning an outfit that is typically not fitting.  It lets you be something you’re not.

Hmmm.  Maybe more people “dress up” than you think.  You don’t have to have a cape to hide who you really are.  I know a ton of folks who look one way on the outside but are something totally opposite on the inside.  Sometimes the outside is less pretty than the inside.  Sometimes not.  Sometimes the disguise is to protect from others looking in.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be accepted for who God created us to be?  I mean, He knows what’s under the hat.  If he’s OK with it, why aren’t we?

Others or yourself?

My dad is a great teacher.  He is very involved in his church and is constantly leading classes on raising kids (not sure if he has credibility there), marriage (he nailed that), communication, and other life stuff.  Recently he sent me the book The DNA of Relationships by Gary Smalley.  Dad’s using it for a class right now.

I’ve meandered through the book over the past month, and one of the big ah-hah’s for me has less to do about relationships and more to do with self.

Dr.  Smalley suggests that happiness comes from within.  He quotes Abraham Lincoln who said, “I reckon that people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”  Smalley goes on to say that a relationship with another flawed human being will not make you happy.  He asks, “Do two unhappy people normally form a happy couple?”  The answer is no.

I’m no expert on resilience or tackling hard issues.  I just did what I had to do.  But one thing I did realize through my grief was that I couldn’t live in a state of unending sadness.  I remember my counselor telling me in an early session after Lisa died that it would be three to five years before I would feel normal again – and that’s if I worked hard.  My response to her was, “That is unacceptable.”  I could not stay in that state.  I had to get out.

I was fortunate to be surrounded by family and friends, including three incredible kids, who injected joy and purpose into my life on a daily basis.  Although I was mad at God, I also had my faith.  I knew there was something more than we see here on this earth.  I clearly didn’t escape on my own.  But there was something in me that drove me to seek more.  That internal drive gave me my life back.

It wasn’t easy.  There were times that I actually felt guilty about being happy.  I had feelings of betrayal when I enjoyed life.  But I kept thinking, my kids deserve a happy dadThey’re going to face other significant obstacles in their life, and they need to see that there can be happiness after tragedy.  It was an example I had to set for them.  And that drove me to get better.

I worked diligently to get my grief out – like sweating out a fever.  I looked for ways to give back to help others in my situation.  I leaned on Uncle Jesse and followed his lead of reinserting zaniness into our house.  I leaned into my grief while simultaneously running in the opposite direction.

This strategy of aggressively facing my grief while looking for ways to combat it worked.  It gave me the ability to develop new friendships, to have the courage to try new things and find new passions, and to enter into an incredible relationship with Julie, my girlfriend, who I truly, truly love.  I can’t imagine my life today had I taken the alternate route.

Movement forward doesn’t come from others, although they can help.  It comes from within.  It comes from perseverance and an internal rejection of sadness or anger or resentment or whatever other negative emotion that festers inside us.

Those who know me would not describe me as an over the top optimistic dude.  I’m naturally sarcastic and can be a bit Chicken Littleish, one eye always watching for the sky to fall.  But those who look beyond the facade, they see more.  I saw an old friend in downtown Raleigh recently.  She looked me up and down and said, “I can tell you’re happy.”  How refreshing to be described that way.

I am grateful I had it in me to declare war on grief.  It’s a battle worth fighting.

122 Degrees? Let’s Do Yoga!

upward dog

Upward Dog, nice

The only reason I agreed to accompany my girlfriend, Julie, and her daughter to HOT yoga was so I could write a blog about it.  I mean seriously… forty people crammed in a room stretching in unnatural ways with the temperature set at 122 degrees.  Who does this willingly?

As I entered the room, it was like a yoga parking lot.  Our spaces were preset so as to maximize floor capacity.  I was sandwiched between Julie and her daughter in row three of five.  In front of me were two women.  One, I quickly found out, could do a full, unassisted headstand – it was not required by the instructor but this was part of her warm up routine – showoff.  The other lady was so flexible I fully believe she could have stuck her head in her own behind.

The room smelled like the inside of a cow and that was before the class began.  Two days later the scent of the armpits surrounding me is affixed firmly in my nostrils.

It was apparent I was the newbie.  The other men in the class wore yoga clothes.  Dry fit shirts that absorb the sweat and shorts with Lycra underneath.  One very fit 30ish year old guy removed his shirt immediately upon entering.   I was not so confident.

I wore an old, holy, Camp Sea Gull shirt.  My boxers dangled below my shorts.  When our instructor, Spandexi, said “Chatturanga” (which is apparently a pose), I looked around for Mexican appetizers.

Apparently this particular studio is owned by a guy named Tanner Houseman (or some cool name like that).  He was not present at our class on Saturday but there were full framed posters of him lining the stairwell.  He was simply wearing yoga pants while doing head stands and other yogi moves.

If I looked like Tanner Houseman, I too would have full sized posters of my half naked self lining my stairwell.  In fact, they’d also be lining my den and bathroom walls, the conference room at work, and I might even wrap myself around my 2007 Acura MDX like a city bus ad.  His arms have greater circumference than my chest.

Julie’s daughter asked where the staircase in the lobby led.  I told her it’s where they store the bodies of those who didn’t make it through the class.

As the end of our sweatful adventure neared it’s end, my classmates and I lay on our backs on our mats.  As I thanked God for sparing my life, I felt a cold cloth draped over my eyes.  I lifted up an edge to make sure that the instructor had placed one on others’ heads as well.  I was fearful she had noticed that I was about to go down and had singled me out.  She had not.  We were all being cared for by our teacher.  She was quite a lovely woman.

After the room cooled to a comfortable 95, we sat with our legs folded.  I felt like the Dali Lama.  Spandexci had us rest our arms, palms up, in front of us and invited us to chant “Ummmmm.”  I pondered participating but simply could not.  I feared I could not control what might come out of my mouth at that moment if I was verbal.  I held my lips tight and continued my prayer that this purgatory would soon come to an end.

It did.  And I am now innerly fumigated.

The Kid Sabbatical

They left me.  Yep.  All three of my girls trekked down to Camp Seafarer for a full five weeks.  Today I pick up Michelle, and I am so, so happy.

When Lisa died seven years ago, in addition to drowning in grief, I developed a fear of being alone.  The thought of staying in our house without other human beings consumed me.  I worked to stagger kid sleepovers so that all wouldn’t be gone at once.  I did the same with overnight camp, picking one up before sending the next.  I was paralyzed by the mere thought of quiet.

When I turned 50, I assumed I was complete.  I am happy, understand my strengths and limitations and am comfortable with who I have become.  What I didn’t expect was more self-growth.  I thought my insides were pretty set – sort of like the gray hair – there was no reversing what had developed; it is what it is.

What I have discovered over the past month is that, even as an aging dude, I’m ever changing, ever growing, ever maturing.  Yeah, I have REALLY missed my kids over the past 36 days (not that I was counting) but this time apart has allotted me time to rejuvenate and to focus on areas of my life that I’ve somewhat neglected.

This past month I’ve been able to focus on my relationship with my girlfriend, Julie.  she doesn’t live in Raleigh so the ability to head to Charlotte or on vacation together has given us the chance to pull back the curtain a bit.  I’ve discovered she’s cooler than I had imagined.  And best of all, after getting to know me even more, she’s still taking my calls!

I’ve exercised, slept hard, read and watched my backlog of DVR’d CBS Sunday Morning shows (man am I old).  I’ve eaten dinner with a number of my buddies, visited my parents twice, and I even got a massage.

I’ve surprised myself this year.  Even at AARP age, there’s still hope to tweak my many imperfections and to face down my fears.  It isn’t over!

I have a long way to go, but it’s nice to know it’s not too late for improvement.

The Gut

A dear friend of mine just resigned from the YMCA where we have worked together for thirty years.  She got an awesome opportunity to work with a former co-worker at the Y in Richmond.  Her kids are both in college, and it just seemed like a great opportunity for her to start anew.  She basically lived in Raleigh her entire life and most of her career, although in different positions, has been in one organization.  Gutsy move.

Big decisions are daunting for me.  I play out scenario after scenario – what if…

I recently went through a significant one with Michelle on high school choice.  That one was not mine to make, but I did hold some responsibility for coaching.

Stephanie is beginning to ponder colleges.  Another biggie.  Where you go to college will set the compass for the rest of your life:  where you live, your future spouse, your kids – all of those things ride on ONE significant decision.

Through the years, I’ve had opportunities to apply for other jobs similar to my friend.  I’ve considered selling my house and downsizing.  Occasionally I get the bug to pick up and leave the comfort of Raleigh, where I’ve spent the past 33 years, just to try something new.  But my roots are so very deep.

I have another friend who has had job after job.  She has lived in at least four cities in North Carolina, in Minnesota, and Colorado.  She has gone to various higher education institutions to chase her dreams.  And, she has always made new friends and adapted well.

I once saw a movie called Sliding Door.  The movie highlights Helen’s life.  She gets fired from her job and heads to the subway for home.  In one scenario, she catches the train and finds her boyfriend cheating on her in their apartment.  In another scenario, she misses the train and has no idea what he did.  The movie follows these two parallel lives.  And the outcome at the end is remarkably different, simply because of one train ride.

I suppose the lesson here is that any decision we make, big or small, can drastically change the course of our lives.  Lisa’s sister met her husband at a bar one night years ago.  Had she stayed at home to watch Grey’s Anatomy, who knows?

I asked my friend how she decided to make the move – what pushed her to jump.  Her reply?  “My gut.”

She simply felt it was the right thing to do at the right time.

Although I’m not happy with her for leaving, I’m pretty sure she’s made the right decision.  A little prayer and the following of your “gut” can lead you to some pretty incredible things.

 

 

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